Improving standards of conduct in public life

In November, the Constitution Unit hosted Lord (Jonathan) Evans, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, to discuss its new report, ‘Upholding Standards in Public Life’. Lisa James summarises the discussion.

In November, the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) published its report Upholding Standards in Public Life, the result of a year-long review of the system of standards bodies regulating the UK government. Following the report’s publication, the Constitution Unit hosted a webinar with CSPL’s Chair, Lord (Jonathan) Evans, to discuss the findings. The event also followed closely behind the parliamentary standards scandal over then-MP Owen Paterson, in which the government was forced to U-turn after trying to overturn the House of Commons Standards Committee’s findings against Paterson on allegations of inappropriate lobbying.

The summary below reflects Lord Evans’ remarks and conversation with the Unit’s Director, Meg Russell. A full video of the event, including the audience Q&A, is available on our YouTube page.

Lord Evans began by introducing CSPL and the reasoning behind the Standards Matter 2 inquiry. CSPL is an independent advisory body, with an independent majority and a minority of party-political members. Established by then Prime Minister John Major in the wake of the cash-for-questions scandal, it was originally conceived as an ‘ethical workshop’ for the public sector. Continuing the metaphor, Lord Evans suggested that CSPL’s recent inquiry might be seen as an ‘MOT’ of the regulatory system for government: a wide-ranging review of the whole system, in an attempt to identify problems and suggest improvements. Focusing on ethical standards, the committee did not recommend radical change, but identified a number of moderate, ‘common-sense’ reforms to strengthen the system. These fell into three broad categories: stronger rules; greater independence for regulators; and a stronger compliance culture within government.

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Reforming the mayoral voting system: do ministers’ arguments stack up?

This week, the Elections Bill was amended to replace the Supplementary Vote (SV) system used for electing mayors and police and crime commissioners (PCCs) in England and Wales with First Past the Post (FPTP). But, as Alan Renwick and Alejandro Castillo-Powell argue, the arguments put forth by ministers are not as convincing as they might at first appear.

Ministers plan to replace the Supplementary Vote (SV) system used for electing mayors and police and crime commissioners (PCCs) in England and Wales with First Past the Post (FPTP). The most detailed explanation for the change given so far appeared in a press release last month, which gave five arguments for the switch: (1) SV increases the number of spoilt ballots; (2) it allows ‘loser’ candidates to win; (3) FPTP improves accountability by ‘making it easier for voters to express a clear choice’; (4) FPTP ‘is the world’s most widely used electoral system’; and (5) SV is ‘an anomaly’ and ‘out of step with other elections in England’. In the written statement that first trailed the proposals, Home Secretary Priti Patel also said (6) that the change ‘reflects that transferable voting systems were rejected by the British people in the 2011 nationwide referendum’. Some of these arguments were repeated, though in less detail, when the matter was considered at the Committee Stage of the Commons bill’s scrutiny earlier this week.

This post assesses the government’s claims in turn. Some have merit, but important counterarguments are ignored. Voting systems should be treated with care: it is all too easy for those in power to manipulate them to their own advantage. Ministers have not adequately made the case that the change will be good for democracy.

1. Does Supplementary Vote lead to more spoilt ballots

Elections using SV in the UK typically see higher numbers of spoilt ballots than do those using FPTP. Electoral Commission data shows that 0.8% of ballots cast in local council elections in May – under FPTP – were rejected. That compares to over 2% in most elections under SV. In PCC elections, they stood at 2.9% this year, down from 3.4% in 2016. In London mayoral elections, they have ranged between 1.8% in 2012 and 4.3% this year. They have generally been around 2% in other combined authority mayoral elections, peaking at 2.2% in 2018.

That SV elections show higher rates of rejected ballots does not mean that SV itself is necessarily the culprit. The jump in such ballots in this year’s London mayoral election points to another factor: ballot paper design. The Electoral Commission notes the use in that contest of a new, untested design, split over two columns because of the large number of candidates, which voters described as ‘being confusing/complex’. Poor design similarly led to more spoilt ballots in the 2007 Scottish local and parliamentary elections. Another factor may be deliberate spoiling of ballot papers: the Electoral Commission noted anecdotal evidence of this in the 2012 PCC elections.

So SV elections do see more spoilt ballots than FPTP elections, but improved ballot paper design – and clearer guidance for voters – might ameliorate the problem.

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Online harms to democracy: the government’s change of approach

Two years after the publication of the government’s Online Harms white paper, the government has published its final consultation response. Its commitment in the white paper to legislate to prevent online harms to democracy has disappeared, to the frustration of many inside and outside parliament. Alex Walker reflects on the government’s decision to ‘abandon the field’ and argues that a laissez-faire approach could lead to negative consequences.

It is expected that the Queen’s Speech on 11 May will include the government’s long-awaited Online Safety Bill. This will be a major piece of legislation with significant implications for the regulation of digital technology companies in the UK. However, when it is introduced it now seems highly unlikely that it will encompass measures to prevent harms to democracy, as was initially indicated.

The Online Harms white paper published in April 2019 set out a position that recognised the dangers that digital technology could pose to democracy and proposed measures to tackle them. This was followed by an initial consultation response in February 2020 and a full response in December. In the course of the policy’s development, the democracy aspect of the proposals has disappeared. The government now points instead to other areas of activity. This represents a shift away from the ambition of the white paper, which promised to address online harms ‘in a single and coherent way.’

Online Harms white paper: April 2019

The white paper first put forward the government’s intention for a statutory duty of care that would make companies responsible for harms caused on their platforms. This would include illegal harmful content, such as child abuse and terrorist material, but also some forms of harmful but legal content, including disinformation and misinformation. The white paper explicitly framed some of its proposals for tackling online harms in relation to the consequences for democracy. It detailed some of the harms that can be caused, including the manipulation of individual voters through micro-targeting, deepfakes, and concerted disinformation campaigns. It concluded that online platforms are ‘inherently vulnerable to the efforts of a few to manipulate and confuse the information environment for nefarious purposes, including undermining trust’. It recognised that there is a distinction to be drawn between legitimate influence and illegitimate manipulation.

The white paper also set out what the government expected to be in the regulators’ Code of Practice, and what would be required to fulfil the duty of care. This included: using fact-checking services, particularly during election periods; limiting the visibility of disputed content; promoting authoritative news sources and diverse news content; and processes to tackle those who misrepresent their identity to spread disinformation. It stated that action is needed to combat the spread of false and misleading information in part because it can ‘damage our trust in our democratic institutions, including Parliament.’

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Can analogue politics work in an era of digital scrutiny? The negative effect of COVID-19 on the informal politics of Westminster

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This week the House of Commons approved measures to conduct business in a semi-virtual form. These were necessary to ensure parliament can function during the coronavirus crisis, but as Greg Power explains, they will also involve the loss of some of the key elements of parliamentary life that enable effective scrutiny and party management. 

Parliament finally returned in semi-virtual form this week. While initial coverage has inevitably focused on the novel use of digital technology in the most analogue of institutions, underlying this are more important questions about whether parliament will be able to exert the same political pressure on government when its members are not physically present. 

Westminster is not alone in this task. Every other legislature around the world is looking for ways to meet and decide things when MPs cannot be in the same room, most of which seem destined to further increase the share price of Zoom. Yet, as most parliaments are finding, whilst adapting the formal procedures is a relatively easy task, the politics is more complex.

For example, Brazil moved swiftly to change its rules to allow fully virtual plenary sessions, South Africa has introduced new systems for electronic submission of questions to ministers and many parliamentary committees have quickly moved to remote meetings. Other countries, like France, Ireland, Norway and Germany have reduced both the amount of business, and the number of people allowed in the plenary at any one time, along with other provisions for remote deliberations and questions. 

The UK has ended up with a similar combination of measures, but spats have already emerged in other countries about the politics of such changes. Reducing the number of MPs in the chamber at any one time for questions seems appropriate, provided those numbers reflect the party balance. But who decides which MPs get to turn up? And if parliamentary business is being reduced, what takes priority? This is the traditional territory of the party whips, who will relish the ability to further influence the tone and contents of such public debates. Continue reading